Briefing Paper: Strengthening responses to conflict-related sexual violence against boys deprived of their liberty in situations of armed conflict – World – ReliefWeb

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Executive summary
Each year thousands of children are deprived of their liberty in situations of armed conflict, many because of their actual or alleged association with parties to the conflict or on alleged national security-related grounds. The increasing numbers of children being detained is a concern in itself, but also because child detainees are highly vulnerable to a wide range of human rights violations and abuses, including conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV).
The vast majority (over 95%) of children detained in armed conflict are boys. So, although all children are at risk of sexual violence in detention settings, and girls are disproportionality impacted by CRSV generally, this discussion paper focuses on how detained boys are exposed to the risk of CRSV in particularly high numbers and examines possible responses to this.
Based on available data, rape and other forms of sexual violence against males, including boys, are reported more frequently in situations of deprivation of liberty than in most other settings. Although many, possibly most, incidents are never reported, CRSV against boys deprived of their liberty has been documented in recent years in countries including Afghanistan, Central African Republic (CAR), Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Most documented incidents relate to boys held by state security forces but CRSV against boys deprived of their liberty by non-State armed groups (NSAGs) has also been reported. In both instances, CRSV has been used as a form of torture, to punish, to extract information or to exert authority. In some contexts, it is also committed by other detainees.
Chronic under-reporting of CRSV in general, combined with challenges involved in gathering data in detention settings, means that the true scale of the problem is not known and the risks to, vulnerabilities of, and impacts on young detainees are poorly understood. This, by extension, hampers efforts to effectively prevent and respond to it.
However, CRSV in detention settings is not a standalone issue, but must be addressed as part of broader, ongoing efforts to protect children in situations of armed conflict. It is also necessarily a collective endeavour, requiring dedicated attention from a wide range of different stakeholders.
Recommendations on how this could be done emerged from research for this paper, that included consultations with experts working on policy and/or programming relating to the deprivation of liberty of children, CRSV, the release and reintegration of children associated with armed forces and armed groups (CAAFAG), and in the field of mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) in different countries across the globe.
Respondents highlighted the need for further in-depth research and analysis to establish a more complete understanding of conflict-related deprivation of liberty and its links to human rights abuses, including CRSV. They also emphasised the need for coordinated strategies to strengthen prevention and ensure the availability of and access to survivor-centred, gender and age-appropriate responses, including medical care, MHPSS for both boy and girl victims/survivors, and effective accountability processes.
Specific issues in need of attention were also identified, many of them equally applicable to girls as well as boys:
I. Addressing data gaps and overcoming practical obstacles to documentation: Available data shows that there is already much cause for concern, but many respondents considered the scale of CRSV against detained boys to be much greater than documented. There was consensus that more consistent monitoring and reporting are needed to inform and support effective responses, although opinions diverged on how data could be collected and how potential harm to affected children (resulting for example from reprisals by detaining authorities or lack of follow-up support for affected children) could be mitigated.
Working on the assumption that it is likely that boys may have been subjected to some form of abuse, including potentially CRSV, whether in detention or before, it was widely considered that making appropriate responses available was a good starting point and indeed is already a modus operandi for some. However, others pointed out that details of individual cases and an understanding of trends are needed to establish patterns, identify perpetrators and understand causes in order to inform effective prevention strategies and to hold those responsible to account.
Also highlighted was the scope for improved coordination and information-sharing between the many and varied government, UN and non-governmental actors involved in protecting the rights of detained children and responding to victims/survivors of CRSV.
The importance of high-level political engagement with parties to armed conflict to secure regular, independent, unhindered access to all places of detention was also stressed, with lack of or limited access consistently raised as an obstacle to effective protection of detained children. At the same time, emphasis was placed on the need for increased capacity to enable the safe and ethical documentation of sexual violence against children in detention settings.
II. Mapping potential risks of CRSV in detention settings: A mapping of detention practices can help to identify potential risks to children in support of advocacy and other interventions. Among the risk factors identified were:
(a) Detaining authorities and places of detention – for example, the risk of CRSV may be higher when children are detained by military actors (both state and NSAGs), or when held in unofficial or secret places of detention; (b)
Detention procedures – the absence of juvenile justice systems or non-compliance with procedural safeguards to protect children deprived of their liberty, such as access to families, legal counsel, medical care and judicial oversight, are all potential indicators of risk of CRSV. The lack of age verification processes is also a risk factor; (c)
Physical conditions of detention: Poor conditions such as overcrowding, mixing of children with adults, and use of punishments such as solitary confinement, were among those identified as risk-heightening factors for CRSV.
III. Analysing the role of gender and other intersectional factors: Pervasive stereotyping based on gender is increasingly recognised as among the reasons for the disproportionate number of boys detained in situations of armed conflict – with boys often presumed to be associated with opposing forces or labelled “terrorists” or “violent extremists” and therefore treated as perpetrators rather than the victims of human rights violations that they often are. This has resulted in the apparently arbitrary detention of increasing numbers of boys in many modern conflicts. Once detained, gender and other intersecting diversity characteristics (such as ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity or disability) may combine to increase the risk of CRSV, while stigma resulting from real or perceived association with a particular armed group can result in ill-treatment by detaining officials or other detainees. Systematically applying an intersectional gender lens to analysis of data is therefore necessary to establish context-specific understandings of and effective responses to factors that may place certain children in situations of heightened risk of, or increase their vulnerability to, CRSV.
IV. Addressing root causes: CRSV in detention settings is facilitated by or connected to other human rights abuses. Respondents therefore emphasised the need tackle root causes and their underlying causes, including enhancing efforts to prevent and end child recruitment and use. They likewise stressed the need for reinforced efforts to reduce the numbers of detained children, including through strict compliance with child rights standards which require children affected by armed conflict to be treated primarily as victims, their best interests to be a primary consideration in all actions, and detention to be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate time.
Moreover, consistent with best practices, parties to armed conflict should be encouraged to establish and implement protocols for the swift handover of any child who is detained to civilian child protection actors for reintegration and other support. These protections should apply to all children irrespective of whether the armed group to which they allegedly belong has been designated as a terrorist organisation. Respondents also emphasised that principles of child rights protection must be fully reflected and guaranteed in counter-terrorism laws, policies and action.
V. Understanding and addressing the needs and wishes of boy victims/survivors: Respondents stressed the need to address and treat multiple layers of trauma experienced by child detainees, whether before, during or after their incarceration, and for greater recognition that CRSV may be among the abuses experienced. In practice, there is often little in the way of care and support for incarcerated children, and support for their recovery and reintegration following release is also highly variable. There was consensus among respondents that there is still insufficient recognition that boys deprived of their liberty can be subjected to CRSV, and concern about the capacity of reintegration programmes, whether residential or community-based, to systematically identify and provide appropriate support to boy victims/survivors of CRSV. Particular concerns were raised about the way in which counter-terrorism narratives and the failure to see CAAFAG first and foremost as victims of human rights violations have contributed to a reluctance by governments and funders to support programmes to assist children detained on account of their association with armed groups designated as terrorist.
Consistent with recommendations made by child protection and other stakeholders over the years, there was therefore a call for increased funding for child protection programming in detention settings, and for long-term, community-based programming for the recovery and reintegration of children upon their release from detention. Such funding should be provided without discrimination of any kind, including on the basis of which armed forces or armed group the child may have been affiliated with.
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